USC business student’s ‘epiphany’ paves way to help the poor

jwilkinson@thestate.comFebruary 15, 2013 

A tiny village in Costa Rica isn’t the most likely place to have a business epiphany, but that’s just what happened to Chase Adam.

The University of California-Santa Barbara student was serving in the Peace Corps in a remote village. While riding a bus on Dec. 3, 2010, in the village of Watsi, he noticed a woman who boarded the bus and showed some papers to each rider. All of them gave her money.

The papers were her son’s medical records. The donations were for his care. “I had an epiphany,” the 26-year-old Adam said from his office in Mountain View, Calif. “I thought it would be great to have a website to help people like this woman.”

Adam immediately huddled with his two best friends on the Peace Corps mission – Howard Glenn, a Greensboro native who was bound for the University of South Carolina’s Moore School of Business, and Mark Murrin of Long Beach, Calif. The result was Watsi.org, a “Kickstarter”-type website that solicits money for medical procedures for poor people in Third World countries.

Since its launch in 2011, the site has attracted some prestigious grants from entrepreneurial funders, including a $5,000 award from USC through the school’s The Proving Ground Entrepreneurial Challenge. It has since helped more than 120 people around the world get life-changing treatments for ailments such as burns, club foot and cleft palette.

“Our site allows you to directly fund low-cost, high impact medical treatment for underserved populations abroad,” said Glenn, in between classes at the Moore School. “We focus on procedures that have a high probability of changing people’s lives.”

Finding funding

Glenn helped turn Adam’s epiphany into a business reality at the Moore School.

After his return to Columbia from Costa Rica in 2011, Glenn worked out a business plan for a student competition in a class taught by USC professors Dirk Brown and Richard Robinson. It came in third, but the professors urged Glenn to submit it to the 2012 Proving Ground Competition, sponsored by the Faber Entrepreneurial Center at the Moore School, the Maxient software company and other entities.

The competition, then in its third year, awarded $40,000 in startup support grants to USC students from all seven campuses for innovative business ideas. Glenn and his California partners won $5,000 in the social impact category – one of three categories.

“I gave a five-minute pitch to a live audience,” Glenn said. “I wasn’t surprised that we were competitive and were a finalist, but winning was a surprise.”

After that win and other awards, the team landed a $17,000 grant and office space from Y Combinator, one of the world’s most prestigious online business accelerators. It had previously helped launch sites like Dropbox and Reddit. The fledgling company also attracted other investors and has raised $120,000 to get the website off the ground.

Supporters include Y Combinator founder Paul Graham and the Conway Family Foundation, a Silicon Valley angel investor. The website also got some good ink from Wired magazine, the Wall Street Journal, Forbes and the Huffington Post. “We were the first nonprofit to be invited to be in the Y Combinator accelerator,” Glenn said.

How website works

This is how it works: The website partners with other agencies to identify people in underdeveloped countries, many of them children, whose lives can be improved through simple medical procedures. Profiles of those patients are posted on the website and people can donate as little as $5 toward the total amount needed to fund the procedure.

For instance, the Watsi website lists Eric, a 6-year-old from Zambia, who was born with a club foot. The procedure to correct the condition costs $1,000. So far, the website has raised 21 percent of that, with $790 to go.

Today, Adam and a staff of two other paid employees (Glenn won’t come on board until he finishes school this spring) are building what they hope will be a global force for changing individual lives.

Adam said the $120,000 is “our runway for the next year or two. That will sustain our organization.”

But making a load of money isn’t the primary motivating factor for the website, Glenn said. The employees — Adam, website developer Jesse Cooke and marketing director Grace Garey — draw a simple salary just like other nonprofits, taken from grants from investors. All of the money donated to the site goes to procedures.

Placing the words “fully funded” underneath the pictures of the patients on the website is plenty rewarding in itself, Adam said.

“What really motivates us is our team has spent a lot of time abroad,” he said, “and we think everyone has the right to basic medical care.”

Website developer Cooke, an Indiana native who came to the organization via Portland, Ore., added: “It’s really interesting to see the ‘before’ and the ‘after’ pictures. A lot of time in the ‘before’ pictures they are not smiling, in pain and apprehensive. ‘After,’ they are smiling and happy. It’s just awesome.”

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